Donald Trump has been acquitted in his historic second impeachment trial, allowing him to avoid sanction for the deadly storming of the U.S. Capitol after a dramatic hearing that unfolded on the scene of his alleged crime.
The Senate voted 57 to 43 in favour of conviction Saturday afternoon, with seven Republicans joining all Democrats and independents. This marked the most bipartisan presidential impeachment in the country’s history, and only the second to end with a majority of senators voting against the accused.
It fell short, however, of the two-thirds majority needed to convict, highlighting the sway Mr. Trump continues to hold over his party. The former president had faced one count: incitement of insurrection. Even though he left office last month, Democrats had hoped to bar him from running for president again.
The vote came after Democrats backed down from an effort to call witnesses, as both parties tacitly agreed to bring the proceedings to a swift conclusion. It capped a five-day trial in a fortress-like Capitol still protected by National Guard troops and showing the scars of the Jan. 6 riot, the worst attack on the building since the War of 1812.
Democratic members of Congress, serving as prosecutors, had argued that the mayhem was the culmination of what they termed Mr. Trump’s “big lie” – that a wide-ranging conspiracy had rigged last year’s election against him. If he were not convicted, they argued, he would remain a danger to the country and set a precedent for future political violence.
“The president summoned the mob, assembled the mob, incited it, lit the match, sending them off to the Capitol,” Maryland Congressman Jaime Raskin, the lead impeachment manager, told the Senate shortly before the vote. “He brought them here and now he must pay the price.”
Over the previous days, Democrats had used never-before-seen video footage to reconstruct the attack. They showed the mob beating police officers, smashing up the building, ransacking senators’ desks and coming dangerously close to capturing then-vice president Mike Pence and numerous lawmakers as they fled the Senate and House chambers. They also reconstructed Mr. Trump’s campaign to overturn the election result and his years-long history of encouraging violence by his supporters. Five people were killed in the violence.
In a statement after his acquittal, Mr. Trump was unrepentant.
“This has been yet another phase of the greatest witch hunt in the history of our Country. No president has ever gone through anything like it,” he said.
The seven Republicans who voted against Mr. Trump – Richard Burr of North Carolina, Mitt Romney of Utah, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Susan Collins of Maine, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana – is the highest number of senators of a president’s party ever to support his conviction in an impeachment trial.
President Joe Biden contended that, despite the acquittal, “the substance of the charge is not in dispute,” and Mr. Trump was clearly responsible for the attack on the Capitol.
“This sad chapter in our history has reminded us that democracy is fragile. That it must always be defended. That we must be ever vigilant. That violence and extremism have no place in America. And that each of us has a duty and responsibility as Americans, and especially as leaders, to defend the truth and defeat the lies,” he said in a statement from Camp David.
Mr. Trump’s lawyers maintained the former president’s use of violent rhetoric was purely “metaphorical” and did not cause the riot. They focused on attacking the Democrats and often avoided defending Mr. Trump’s efforts to overturn the election, and his behaviour on the day of the riot.
Michael van der Veen, a member of the former president’s legal team, accused the Democrats of “impeachment lust” in his closing arguments Saturday.
“The entire spectacle has been nothing but the unhinged pursuit of a long-standing political vendetta against Mr. Trump by the opposition party,” he said. “They have conducted a phony impeachment show trial.”
Both parties had a vested interest in concluding the trial swiftly. Mr. Biden wanted the proceedings done with so Congress could work on passing his agenda. And Republicans wanted to avoid further dividing themselves over Mr. Trump.
But on Saturday morning, Mr. Raskin surprised the room by calling Republican Congresswoman Jaime Lynn Herrera Beutler as a witness. Such a move would have prolonged proceedings.
Ms. Herrera Beutler had said in a statement late Friday that House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy told her Mr. Trump privately expressed support for the mob in a phone call during the riot. When Mr. McCarthy asked Mr. Trump to call off the rioters that day, Ms. Herrera Beutler said, Mr. Trump told him: “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”
Mr. van der Veen responded to Mr. Raskin’s request by pounding the table and threatening to “slap” subpoenas of his own on “100 people,” including several Democratic politicians.
The Democrats won a preliminary vote on calling witnesses, suggesting they might have been able to persuade the Senate to agree to hear from Ms. Herrera Buetler without allowing Mr. van der Veen to call witnesses of his own. But after more than two hours of negotiations, Democrats backed down. Ms. Herrera Buetler’s statement was entered into the record and the trial proceeded to closing statements.
The impeachment threatened to tear apart the Republicans.
When Congresswoman Liz Cheney led 10 Republican members of the House in voting for impeachment last month, she faced a furious backlash from her voters. A large majority of caucus, however, voted to keep her in a leadership role during a secret ballot. And associates of Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, told U.S. media that he was considering voting to convict Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump also had had trouble finding lawyers who would defend him. His first legal team quit last month, so the former president had to call in Mr. van der Veen, a Philadelphia personal injury lawyer.
But amid polling showing that Mr. Trump remains popular with Republican voters, most of the caucus fell in line. In an email to colleagues Saturday, Mr. McConnell told them he would vote to acquit.
“While a close call, I am persuaded that impeachments are a tool primarily of removal and we therefore lack jurisdiction,” he wrote.
Still, some of the votes for impeachment were a surprise. Mr. Cassidy, a conservative from a deep-red state, appeared to have been swayed earlier this week after hearing arguments from both sides on the constitutionality of trying a former president. He said afterwards that he had found the Democratic presentation persuasive and that arguments by Mr. Trump’s lawyers, which included a meandering digression about the importance of the senate, were not.
Mr. Trump is the only president to be impeached by the House twice. Andrew Johnson, in 1868, is the only other one whom a majority of senators voted to convict. He escaped the two-thirds margin by a single vote.
In the impeachment trials of Democrats Mr. Johnson and Bill Clinton, in 1998, only Republican senators voted to convict. In Mr. Trump’s 2020 trial, only Mr. Romney broke with his party and voted to convict.
The Globe and Mail, February 13, 2021